Stress-Tolerant Maize for Africa: Solution to Nigerian food insecurity? by Professor M.K Othman

Professor M. K. Othman.
Professor M.K. Othman.


Nigerian population crossed over 200 million people in the last quarter of 2019 that ranked the country as the largest in Africa. This population accounts for 47% of the entire population of West African sub-region.

The population is still growing at approximately 3% per annum to likely reach 430 million people in the next three decades and place Nigeria as the third most populous country in the world after India and China.

Today, in Nigeria, there is widespread hunger and poverty as about 76% of the population lives on less than US$1.25 per day. Poverty and hunger are twin sisters requiring arduous commitment to address.

From records in 2019, Nigeria was ranked 93rd out of 117 countries on the Global Hunger Index and 158th of 189 countries on the 2018 UNDP Human Development Index. With a score of 27.9, the country suffers from a level of hunger that is considered ‘serious’.

In 2018, some ‘Experts’ poised that “Nigeria will have 152 million people in extreme poverty out of a projected population of 429 million by the year 2050” from the 2018 Goalkeepers’ Report.

Going by this report, it means that Nigeria will represent about 36% of the total number of people in “extreme poverty” Worldwide. Poverty and hunger are more concentrated in rural areas where 80% of the population lives below the poverty line.

This picture is making the task of addressing poverty and hunger (SDG goal two) more toilsome. The global Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) states to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. How can Nigeria achieve this goal?

This population of over 200 million people translates to high demand for farm produce, especially food needed to feed the individual household for healthy living. Nigeria being an agrarian nation means that more than 50% of the population earns their livelihoods from agriculture directly or indirectly in addition to household’s food supply. Thus, the nation’s agricultural sector employs approximately two-thirds of the total labour force and contributes over 40% to the GDP.

Globally Nigeria is acknowledged to be the world’s largest producer of cassava, yam, and cowpea. Yet, the country is a food-deficit nation, depending on food imports of grains, livestock products, and fish.

In 2018, the then Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbe was quoted saying “spends $22 billion on food importation annually” (

Although the import bills of foodstuff have drastically reduced due to current effort of the federal government to boost agricultural productivity there is still restricted food importation into the country.

The massive foods importation is in spite of large unquantifiable agricultural resources across the nation. Out of an estimated 75 million hectares of cultivable land, only half is currently used for farming; there is similar potential for an expansion of cultivable land under irrigation, which now only covers about ten per cent of the irrigable land.

In addition to this derisory performance, there are both biotic and abiotic challenges to agricultural productivity. Drought, decreasing soil fertility, pests and diseases are among the serious constraints to agricultural development in Nigeria. These challenges are a serious threat to food security in the country.

Annually, research reports on global food security situation show that Nigeria, in particular, and Africa, in general, are being threatened by food insecurity and poor nutrition, heightened by political, economic and social insecurities across the country.

Farmers in the northeast, northwest and part of north-central are abandoning agricultural activities due to persistent insecurity challenges. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have become commonplace and an everyday occurrence in the country since 2010. With these IDPs, comes the challenge of food insecurity, especially among women and children, in the face of dwindling agricultural activities.

More specifically, the need to feed over 300 million people by the year 2050 is underscoring the need to attain self-sufficiency and keep pace with the increase in population growth and consumption patterns of the teeming population through improved agricultural technology development and dissemination.

The food insecurity issue is also brought about by challenges related to climate change such as rising temperature; these are grossly affecting the onset of rain and prevalence of pests and diseases.

Addressing the food insecurity fervently requires the need to make available to farmers planting materials that are high yielding, tolerant to drought, and responsive to depleting soil fertility.

It also requires innovative thinking to enhance food utilization through advanced processing techniques. This need became the irresistible motivation that galvanized our indefatigable plant scientists across research centers to formulate a solution. The solution is the innovativeness called “Stress-Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA)”.

STMA did not come out from the blues, it was the result of deliberate and coordinated efforts of untiring innovators over time. Consequently, there was a birth of STMA Project in 2016.

This was a sequel to the recorded success of breeding and promotion of Drought-Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA), which was done between 2007 and 2015. With DTMA, many far northern areas such as Katsina north, Jigawa, Yobe and Borno became aggressive maize producers despite their limited annual rainfall period of less than 150 days.

Impressively, the development and promotion of DTMA varieties have aggressively increased adoption and utilization of maize in the country. How was STMA innovated?

STMA was derived from the combined products and successes of the two previous projects: the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) and Improved Maize for African Soils (IMAS). The products under DTMA are maize varieties with drought tolerance (DT).

Similarly, the products under IMAS are maize varieties with high nitrogen use efficiency (NUE). Therefore, the STMA project deals with the development, production, testing and promotion of mainly four varieties of maize.

These varieties are Drought-tolerant or tolerant to climatic stresses, Striga-resistant, disease/pest-resistant, and low-nitrogen tolerant or high nitrogen use efficiency. Why the choice of maize among all the major food crops?

Maize (Zea mays) is a member of the grass family (Gramineae) originating from South and Central America. The Portuguese introduced maize to West Africa in the 10th century. Maize is one of the important grains in Nigeria, not only on the basis of the number of farmers that engaged in its cultivation but also in its economic value.

Maize is a major important cereal crop being cultivated in the rainforest and the savannah zones. In fact, maize is produced in all the 36 states and FCT with different level of productions. Based on agronomic and physiologic features, maize production is one of the simplest crop productions.

It has been a staple food and diets of Nigerians for centuries. It started as a subsistence crop and has gradually become a more important crop. Maize has now risen to a commercial crop on which many agro-based industries depend on as raw materials.

With the right application of improved seeds and agricultural practices, maize is generally high yielding. It is also a versatile crop, allowing it to grow across a range of agro-ecological zones in the country. Maize thrives best in a warm climate and is now grown in most of the countries that have suitable climatic conditions.

It is best planted after the soil temperature reaches 60°F and can be planted alongside beans, potatoes, peas, and cucumber. Using good agronomic practices (GAP) to produce maize, a farmer can earn three to four times the value of his/her investment.

There are basically six types of maize/corn: Pod corn or wild maize is known best as the progenitor of maize, that is, the earliest variety of maize or the variety that it originated from. Flint maize has a hard outer layer and low water content and sometimes it is multi-coloured, used as ornamental, especially in the United States during Thanksgiving. Dent corn/maize has high soft starch content and is commercially grown for grain and fodder; popcorn is a variety that expands and puffs when heated.

When heated, the kernel ruptures and allows the content of the kernel to expand, cool and finally set into popcorn. There is also flour maize/ corn, a variety with soft endosperm used primarily to make corn flour.

Finally, there is sweet corn, which is a variety that has high sugar content and is mostly considered a vegetable. Sweet corn is best when eaten fresh or canned to preserve its freshness. What are the successes of STMA in Nigeria and can it be used to address the food security challenges? To be continued next week. –With an additional report from Dr G. Onagwa.

Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.



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